Incident Date: May 25, 1979
Department: Shelby Fire Department (NC)
Number of Line-of-Duty Deaths: 4
On the evening of May 25, 1979, Shelby Fire Department and firefighters from surrounding communities responded to an investigation of smoke in a storefront in Uptown Shelby on West Warren Street. Firefighters arrived on the scene to heavy smoke showing in a commercial storefront, which quickly spread throughout the row and threatened the entire city block.
While firefighters worked to contain the blaze and protect exposures, an explosion, which they later believed to be a backdraft, occurred causing a building collapse. The collapse sent bricks and glass flying into the street. Earlier that evening, just before the call came out, firefighters had switched out to another American LaFrance engine that had the pump panel on its left side. The engineer who was on the pump panel that evening was shielded from the blast by the badly damaged engine.
Five were killed in the explosion and collapse: Lieutenant George Magness, Firefighter Nathan Hall, Firefighter Donald “Gene” Melton, Firefighter Floyd “Nick” Sharts, and Shelby Gas Department worker Max Bowling. Twelve other firefighters and over thirty of the fifty civilians who gathered at the scene were also injured. Shelby firefighters and over 230 firefighters from nearby communities worked tirelessly to extinguish the fire and worked through the night to rescue their trapped brothers.
After the fire, the department grew stronger and the community, which had been changed by the fire, rallied around its firefighters.
The uptown district suffered over 5 million dollars in property damage as a result of the fire. What was initially believed to be a gas explosion, was later determined to be arson.
In May 2019, the City of Shelby dedicated its Fallen Heroes Memorial at Raper-Roarke Park which includes Lieutenant George Magness, Firefighter Nathan Hall, Firefighter Donald “Gene” Melton, Firefighter Floyd “Nick” Sharts, and Max Bowling.
The uptown Shelby explosion on May 25, 1979, is largest single event line-of-duty death of firefighters in North Carolina.
Killed in the Explosion:
Scene photos © Lem Lynch Photography
- City of Shelby: May 25, 1979 & NC Fallen Firefighters Foundation
- Legeros Fire Blog: Four Shelby Firefighters Killed in Explosion, May 25, 1979
- Office of the State Fire Marshal’s Fire & Rescue Journal: Looking Back: The Great Shelby Fire of May 1979
- Firehouse.com: North Carolina Town Recalls 1979 Blast That Killed Five
- The Shelby Star: ‘They gave their all’: 35 years after Shelby fire, community remembers five men’s sacrifice
- WRAL: A look back at the deadly 1979 fire in Shelby
- Dale from Shelby: “Uptown Fire” Shelby, NC, May 25, 1979
- North Carolina Fallen Firefighters Foundation & Memorial
More About Memorial Monday
Memorial Monday is established to remember the sacrifice of firefighters who died in the line of duty before the National Memorial was created in 1981. On the last Monday of every month, a firefighter, or groups of firefighters, will be remembered through information located about the firefighter and their sacrifice.
- Memorial Monday – Texas City Disaster
- Memorial Monday – Bowen-Merrill Bookstore Fire
- Memorial Monday – Merrimac Street Fire
- Memorial Monday – Butte Warehouse Explosion
- Memorial Monday – Louisville Recreation Center Fire
- Memorial Monday – Wichita Commercial Roof Collapse
- Memorial Monday – Sitka Brush Fire/Explosion
- Memorial Monday – Duluth Street Car Crash
- Memorial Monday – Blackwater Fire
- Memorial Monday – Auburn Apparatus Collision
- Memorial Monday – Swanson Office Building Fire
- Memorial Monday – Jass Manufacturing Company Fire
- Memorial Monday – St. Louis Streetcar Collision
- Memorial Monday – Strand Theatre Fire
- Memorial Monday – Tru-Fit Clothing Company Fire
- Memorial Monday – Hubbard Street Fire